Common Cause Challenges Filibuster, While Senate Leader Embraces Reform Efforts

May 15, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Obstructionism in Congress, as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein argue in their new book, is largely, if not solely, born by Republicans. The obstructionism, which has, among other things, kept the number of vacancies on the federal bench consistently high, is finally prompting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to rethink his opposition to reforming the filibuster, which has been the primary tool for Republican obstructionism in the Senate.

The public interest group, Common Cause, has also gotten into the act by lodging a federal lawsuit against that the filibuster, which conservatives in the Senate have used in an unprecedented manner, helping to create a Congress where not much is accomplished. (The Tea Party and the nation’s super wealthy, of course, like it this way. Economic policy continues to exacerbate economic inequality and brain-addled Tea Party leaders believe the Constitution established a weak central government, though in reality they just long for the Articles of Confederation, which really did establish a weak central power.)

Writing about the lawsuit for the Common Cause blog, Common Blog, Bob Edgar, the group’s president and CEO, who served 12 years in Congress, claims “ideological purists” in both parties have learned how to wield the filibuster to “pretty much shut the place down.” The filibuster he maintains is supposed to extend debate, not stop it.

“Here’s how the obstructionists work,” he writes. “To begin debate on a bill, senators must first adopt a ‘motion to proceed.’ But debate on that motion, as on most everything else that comes before the Senate is unlimited unless at least 60 senators vote to end it. That means a minority of as few as 41 can block any action simply by refusing to permit a vote on the motion to proceed.”

The group, representing members of Congress and children of undocumented immigrants who would have benefited from enactment of the DREAM Act, says the Constitution intends for the filibuster’s use in specific circumstances.

Attorney Emmet J. Boundurant and Common Cause Staff Counsel Stephen Spaulding prepared and lodged the lawsuit. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein in a blog post about the constitutionality of the filibuster cites a 2011 article in which Boundurant explains his constitutional case against the filibuster. Klein also provides historical context for the filibuster, calling it a mistake. Klein cites Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison containing arguments against the use of a supermajority.  

While Common Cause may see obstructionism as a product of both parties Mann and Ornstein say not so.

“Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies,” the two wrote in an essay for The Post adapted from their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.

They continue, “The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.”

The Common Cause lawsuit, as a New York Times’ editorial notes, may not be “necessary,” if Sen. Reid is able to champion reform of the filibuster. “If Reid remains majority leader in January,” The Times’ editorial states, “he should lead the reform.”

Politico reported recently on Reid’s floor comments expressing frustration over his failure to embrace filibuster reform efforts and Republicans’ continued abuse of the procedure.

“If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rules, because it’s been abused, abused, abused,” he said.

[image via cliff1066]